Stay at home! The politics of COVID-19

This week, a dramatic shift in the response to the coronavirus pandemic in the UK was attributed to the release of new modeling by researchers at Imperial College, London. The modeling shows how different scales of public health measures might affect the spread of the virus and it confirms something that historical precedents show: namely, that the virus will likely linger until late 2020.

The predictions are worrying, but the advice remains the same: stay home, stay away.

It is hardly incidental that the governments that have needed the most convincing to take action on this crisis have been hard right-wing governments (specifically, it seems, in the rich West). Some have even contemplated the repugnantly neo-Malthusian notion of ‘herd immunity’. Government leaders in the UK, US and Australia prevaricated, seemingly in an attempt to quell the economic impact caused by ‘investors’ panicking. But investors are a frisky, irrational lot, ever-vigilant to protect their hard unearned dollars. And so, as ‘stock markets’ crumbled and we were all told to identify the waterfall of red numbers with our own fates, governments began to take action.

As I have noted recently following Adam Tooze’s excellent history of the GFC, crisis response is never politically neutral. Financial capitalism was bolstered during the last crisis, and the stimulus packages of ever-increasing size announced by Scott Morrison are carefully targeted. The definition of ‘essential’ (as in essential services), like the vague term ‘business’, disguises highly political decisions and evaluations. Industry must go on, but as far as the right is concerned, if this crisis induces a further lurch towards work casualisation, so much the better.

The right has rarely let a serious crisis go to waste. Crises are chances for political opportunism to sneak in under the guise of pragmatism and necessity. But, as Naomi Klein points out, there’s a ‘script.’ Economic stimulus for the right means tax cuts, subsidies to major polluters and support for private health insurers. While this is a time for homely measures of care, it is also a time to be alert and – I hate to say – opportunistic. This could be the time social movements are built, networks are created that mean our post-crisis world changes direction.


Stay at home? Which home? Whose home?

The advice is to stay at home.

Of course, this is a measure that favours – even benefits – those who have a home and plenty of savings. It should be obvious that homeless people are particularly vulnerable. Given the apparently endless supply of money being wheeled out, there is no reason why, for instance, it could not go into bulk-booking hotel beds, with bathrooms. Literally everyone wins in this scenario.

And migrants, especially anyone who has recently arrived, or someone whose visa might be running out, as well as asylum seekers and refugees (not to mention tourists, often in a more luxurious position) don’t exactly have the same kind of homes many of us enjoy.

In the US, the punitive detention regimes have not stopped. I can’t imagine that ICE agents with masks are any more friendly, or appear any more protective than ICE agents without masks. As Nick Buxton and Ben Hayes asked, ‘what is being secured, for whom, from whom, and at what cost?’ The conditions of immigration detention, like prisons and other spaces of forced confinement, are not safe spaces. The crisis reveals what the real purpose of these places is, fuelling racist imaginaries and quarantining fears and shame; the continuities in Western foreign policy and the treatment of, for instance, Muslim people with their response to ‘foreign’ pandemics are revealing, as Tasnim Mahmoud Sammak wrote just this week for Overland.

The terrifying right-wing attack on the small gains in gendered violence awareness should also remind us of those who must ‘go home’ and ‘stay home’ with partners who threaten and perpetrate violence against them. Families, with whom we are all now to be isolated given the logic of family home ownership, are not safe spaces for many women and children. There was no crisis when a man yet again a man murdered a woman and her children. Right-wing responses to crisis reinforce the logic of the nuclear, propertarian, heterosexual family: that is where we should all seek refuge. (For an isolation read, I recommend Melinda Cooper’s Family Values, which shows in one instance how the neoliberal response to the AIDS crisis was to introduce family norms into the queer community.)

Finally, the demand that we stay at home assumes that our homes are stable, guaranteed places, secured from the deleterious effects of an economic crash. But renters and mortgage holders, especially those in casual or precarious employment (of which Australia has particularly high numbers), do not have that luxury. In the UK, banks are ‘permitting payment holidays’ from mortgages, but tenants are not so well looked after. This reflects the deep inequalities in the economy, and the advantages offered to wealthy home-owners and buyers over the last decades. Calls for eviction freezes and rent suspensions are necessary, whether they will happen (and for whom) remains to be seen.


It’s fine. Stay at home. Work from home.

It is vital to the government that we keep working. For many, that is simply impossible. Culture and the arts have been particularly hard hit, other than the unpaid, but immensely profitable (for the multinational platform capitalists like Google, Facebook and Amazon) creative outputs that have drenched the internet. What it means to do something ‘together’ is changing from something public to something private but broadcast. As Hannah Arendt might say, the fabric of the common world, defined like our freedom by our ability to ‘act in concert’ and our culture, could become unwoven.

Those who are able to work from home are likely to be white-collar professionals, whose offices are simply glorified status symbols anyway. But there is also an increasing number of casually employed people who might work on their personal computers, paying for their own infrastructure like internet connections and electricity. Working from home in professional jobs is the preserve of the middle and upper classes, and this crisis will only exacerbate that divide.

We are being subjected to a peculiar phenomenon of being on the run while remaining static. Fevers make the world swim even if we’re lying in bed. Before the virus, I often worked from home in a fairly isolated setting, and it tended to occur at a sedate pace governed by the faint rumble of needing, occasionally, to get something done. Now I get hourly updates from my employer, sometimes with new advice, sometimes with variations on old advice, and always demanding my attention and some sort of pointlessly urgent action. I cannot walk into an office and clarify. I could call, but whom? I am aware that the people conveying information to me are much busier than I am – they’re dealing with the same crisis on a much broader scale. So I sit and wait. But clear instructions are not likely to be forthcoming.

What concerns me is that the ‘temporary’ adaption enforced on us by this crisis becomes permanent. As Walter Benjamin famously argued, ‘the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.’ The effects of the crisis on, for instance, tertiary education simply entrench long-term trends towards online learning that have been steadily pushed by the universities to cut their staff numbers, costs and increase their casual workforce while decreasing the quality of their degrees. Add to this the militarisation of campus security in the US, the privatisation of scientific research, and the de-funding of public institutions (and arts organisations and public media), and you get what Anna Kornbluh has called ‘Academe’s Coronavirus Shock Doctrine’,

Kornbluh warns that the changes universities are now introducing will become long-term and permanent:

If instruction is going to be utterly transformed, then other protocols and systems must be too, and faculty members ought to insist upon assurances and protections now.

One strategy extolled by Rebecca Barrett-Fox is to ‘do a bad job of putting your courses online’. I endorse this view not just from the point of view of labour, but also from the point of view of pedagogy and students’ education. We should not make assumptions about students’ aptitude for online environments simply because they are supposed to be ‘digital natives’, nor should we accept any equivalence between online learning and what happens in the classroom.

But I worry that we were already losing the argument on the pedagogical front. That is to say, amidst all the ‘evidence’ given for and against online learning (much of which is funded and presented by those who stand to benefit [or lose] most from the changes), university managements were already changing courses and shifting learning online. It’s simply cheaper for them. Now they have an excuse to enforce it and, in doing so, force people out. Now is our chance to prove the opposite, and I don’t think this need be specific to this or that industry.

The demand that we prepare for online teaching and learning comes with a great deal more work. We need to be able to charge the university for that work. I have heard anecdotally and am experiencing that delivering the kind of online learning demanded by the university and trying to keep up pedagogical standards will require vastly more hours. For instance, delivering a one-hour in-person lecture takes about that amount of time (plus some preparation). Delivering the same ‘content’ online takes longer, because the university is asking us to turn lectures into ‘bite-sized’ chunks, add content, and generally make up for the fact that teaching is no longer someone talking to someone else.

So, let’s charge the university for all this extra work and prove to them that online learning is not an acceptable (or cost-effective) alternative. To do this, casual workers need the support of their faculties, professors and to some extent their students, who serve to gain by our ‘doing a bad job’ now. Amia Srinivasan has pointed out that the attempt to bully us into a double-bind by calling a strike a betrayal of students is, of course, completely wrong. But a strike, like any unifying moment of mutual solidarity, can just as easily be a lesson: someone who joins the strike is

still their teacher, just teaching them something new. Those who insist that striking lecturers do not love their students fail to see that love can still be work, and that the picket can be a classroom.


Finding new ways to stay at home

Says the writer and critic Don Chiasson:

I make a point, whatever I’m teaching, of synchronising my syllabus to the changes in the seasons …

Presumably for the last decade or so his classrooms have had the pitch of a (climate) crisis ringing through them. Or maybe private liberal arts colleges in Massachusetts in the ‘spring’ of poetically ‘tallying losses’ don’t much feel the effects of climate change, being, as they are, day-care sanctuaries for rich kids. Still, the sentiment(ality) struck by Chiasson is pertinent here:

The old ways of holding your body in relation to another person must, apparently, be redesigned, and under conditions in which a show of personal warmth or connectedness seems especially crucial.

I saw a post that likened the virus to putting ink in moving water: what had seemed a consistent, flowing mass becomes a set of variegated streams, moving at different rates. What I have argued is that the command to stay home will follow the logic of ‘family units’ as a Coalition minister drones, defined by wealthy, bourgeois norms and privatised security for the few. I also stumbled upon this line by Hafez:

I would like to see you living in better conditions.

In response to reports of panic buying, Rebecca Solnit reminds us of the insights of disaster sociologist Katherine Tierney, who wrote that ‘elites fear disruption of the social order, challenges to their legitimacy.’ The perception of the majority as irrational and selfish conceals the reality of life under capitalist distributions of the necessary resources for life, and the phenomenon of ‘elite panic.’ They’re already jetting off to their bunkers. Their stockpiling simply began before ours, and encompassed the whole world. Accusing each other of selfishness as we strip the aisles of toilet paper is a poor response to this crisis. Panic buying, like other crisis responses, is driven by securitized, even militarised cognitive and material structures.

But disasters need not spell instant doom. They can ‘provide a temporary liberation from … worries, inhibitions and anxieties …’ They can throw us together, and bring out the best in people, ‘coming together in freely chosen cooperation’, as Solnit writes in A Paradise Built in Hell. I’m not one for psychological solutions to structural problems, but genuine communities seem to be appearing around the world. In particular, there are reports of mutual aid societies that have ‘popped up’ in response to right-wing government inaction, and these seem to be driven in part by existing political communities and their strategies.

From the heart of the crisis in Europe, Italy, Eleonora Priori writes about the (capitalist) contradictions of crisis response. What are delivered as necessary and rational solutions, as I have argued, are in fact highly political and, as Priori notes, follow decades of erosion of welfare and public health provisions that has made most people more vulnerable. The transitions that have been enforced on us disguise the ‘additional flexibilisation of the employment relation’ and ‘come with the increased fragmentation and precarisation for… workers’ while costs are offloaded by employers and governments.

And so we stare at our screens, staying at home. Things are not quiet (or loud) enough to believe in the worst, but changes are happening around us. Priori writes:

Let us reflect on the limits and potentialities of an unprecedented situation, on what we want to keep and to discard.

Some things have stopped, including the rise in CO2 emissions. But long-term government strategy suggests the response will actually make the transition to clean energy harder.

The left cannot let this crisis go to waste. People need to be prioritised over markets and economies, which are terms that homogenise and disguise massively unequal distributions of power and wealth. Let the markets crash; look after each other instead. Mutual-aid societies might open up greater networks for later political activity. And the demands of employers need to be resisted before we walk into the trap of a future they have been planning for us long before COVID-19 ever made their task easier. Stay at home, but reach out, start thinking, strategising, and planning.


Image: The Pirelli Tower in Milan, seat of the Lombardy regional government, lit up to spell the words STAY AT HOME on 18 March 2020

Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a writer, academic and unionist whose work has been published in Overland, Arena, Index Journal, Memo Review and elsewhere. He is a former editor of demos journal and associate editor of Philosophy, Politics, Critique.

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  1. “The Left cannot let this crisis go to waste. People need to be prioritised over markets and economies …”

    Ha !

    Clearly you are not au fait with the foibles of the human species.

    As some wag once noted, if history has taught us anything, it has taught us nothing.

    Those same clowns who privatised public companies like QANTAS then demand taxpayer funded bailouts (but not to keep the workers on) will continue to insist that ‘The Market’ can solve all.

    And, curiouser and curiouser, Joe Bogan will continue to believe them no matter how many times they are screwed over.

    It’s not a coincidence that critics like Stephen Colbert et al are currently off the air while FOX News continues to broadcast its relentless bile and bollocks.

    1. This is gonna get ugly fast !

      Not just because the emergency has suddenly been called and extreme sacrifices demanded for an existential threat to older Australians (when no such sense of emergency or sacrifice was deemed necessary over the imminent climate change catastrophe which will disproportionately impact young Australians) …

      and not just because the industries that have been ordered to shut down are blatantly more likely to employ workers who vote Labor or Green whilst those allowed to keep operating more likely to skew in favour of the Coalition …

      but the decision that only some Australians will qualify for the much-vaunted changes to welfare assistance while others won’t.

      It goes without saying that in Shonky’s Australia, the burden of sacrifice is never shared equally !

      1. Pretty pathetic that governments are now using the Coronavirus shut down as an excuse to improve their budget bottom lines on things like public libraries etc.

  2. “This could be the time social movements are built, networks are created that mean our post-crisis world changes direction.”

    What we see in this coronavirus crisis is the population-at-large, or what VI Lenin would call ‘the masses’ taking power into their own hands, and acting on their own initiatives rather than taking directions from a political twerp like Scott Morrison.
    I would suggest that Morrison is so down on all the supermarket-stripping and such behaviour that precisely because the people are controlling themselves, and not leaving the task to elected ‘leaders.’
    As for “this could be the time social movements are built, networks are created that mean our post-crisis world changes direction,” I see in that a Leninist hope, but one perhaps deliberately left rather vague.
    The freedom to exchange goods and services as we please is inextricably linked to the freedom to hold whatever opinions we please, and to discuss ideas: so much so that the notion of a marketplace of ideas is inseparable from the one concerned with goods and services. And any future society worth having will feature both, if we are not to descend into fascist or Stalinist barbarism.
    Movements and networks of communication are appearing and evolving all the time. They do not depend on leaders, though the founder of the odd Facebook or Microsoft can play a helpful role.

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